It was easy to suspect “blackout blackmail” last summer when rolling blackouts not linked to wildfires left about 3 million California homes without power for air conditioning or anything else for short stretches during a day of record and near-record heat across the state.
Now, with results recently in from an “investigation” ordered by Gov. Gavin Newsom, it’s even easier to believe there was a commercial motive behind those shutdowns. Not that the agencies which “investigated” themselves among others at the governor’s behest ever mentioned the concept of utility company blackmail. To see that, you had to read between the lines.
Suspicions first arose around the August outages because they featured several oddities, events not seen in California blackouts during this era of occasional random power failures, also a time of planned shutdowns and brownouts by electric companies aiming to avoid liability for starting wildfires.
First, Newsom said he didn’t learn about them until just beforehand, when governors generally get plenty of notice so they can marshal resources to help those affected. There was also the duration – 20 to 30 minutes per blackout, not enough time for any utility to rack up liability even for rotted food in shut-down refrigerators. Plus, while temperatures in a few areas set records, it wasn’t by much of a margin over recent late-summer heat waves which saw no outages.
Thousands of schools and businesses were already shut down, using little power at the time because of the coronavirus pandemic, while solar panels on many homes and buildings continued to relieve demand on the electric grid.
But heads of the three public agencies most involved in keeping California’s power on all signed a damning self-evaluation, accusing themselves of poor planning. Those outfits included the state Public Utilities Commission, the state’s Independent System Operator and the state Energy Commission.
No agency head offered to resign. There’s to be no falling on swords, as used to happen in some countries when authoritative public officials failed in their duties.
This may be because the report looks like little more than a half-truth, at best. For the blackouts came just two weeks before another state agency, the Water Resources Control Board (WRCB), was to give a final ruling on whether four gas-powered electric generating plants that use ocean water for cooling could remain open.
The stated shortfall in August was about 1,500 megawatts at its peak. Those four plants, all of which run intermittently, can produce more than twice that much power. Neither the public agencies involved nor the Southern California Edison Co. could or would say in the blackout aftermath whether any of those plants produced power during the outages, or how much.
That aroused suspicions as this information is not supposed to be secret.
As it ended, the WRCB approved continued operations at most units of the affected plants, in Huntington Beach, Long Beach, Redondo Beach and at Ormond Beach near Oxnard.
“It all looks highly suspicious,” said Bill Powers, a San Diego engineer expert on utility operations. Powers was instrumental about 15 years ago in getting the state to avoid becoming dependent on expensive liquefied natural gas, which an Australian firm had hoped to import in massive quantities through an offshore facility also near Oxnard.
That was a clear-cut case of “blackout blackmail,” both the Southern California Gas Co. and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. saying California would experience extreme energy shortages without importing LNG. That never happened, and a strong movement backed by many state legislators now seeks to ban natural gas appliances from all new construction to minimize greenhouse gas production. San Francisco this fall instituted such a ban.
There have been several other instances of utilities attempting to influence public policy by threatening blackouts. No such threat ever materialized. But this time, there were rolling blackouts, even if they were short.
It’s entirely possible there was also poor planning. But the timing and the fact the report to Newsom completely ignores the four gas-fired plants lends even more suspicion here.
“The preliminary analysis leaves more unanswered questions than answers,” said Loretta Lynch, a former Public Utilities Commission president. Which makes future suspicions of further “blackout blackmail” inevitable.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net